How to collect Korean pop music, part two: the essentials course

How to Collect Korean Pop MusicLast week we kicked off this seven-week series of blog entries exploring the Korean pop scene, under the pretense of (more or less) curating a K-pop playlist for a trip to Seoul at the end of the year. The reaction we got was… well, there was some confusion as to why we’re devoting all this time to K-pop. It wasn’t a lot, thankfully. But we’re here now, and we have to continue. After looking at Seoul’s intricate musical ecosystem, part two of seven will focus on five acts who should be on your K-pop playlist, no matter what – as recommended by this blog’s resident K-pop expert, Rainy.

Our picks this week may seem quite obvious to some, but then again, we picked acts that have been big successes both in South Korea and around the world. But then there are many acts that fit the criteria and yet did not make this list. Well, one, we’re only choosing five. Two, these are Rainy’s picks, and knowing her biases towards girl groups and Siwon, this is the best we can get. Three, we have five more weeks to dig through all of the other acts (or at least we’ll try to) so please, no complaints, and let’s get on with the show. (Or if you really feel that much, the “additional reading” section at the tail end might placate you.)


Super Junior is a boy group filled with derps. Yesung owned a pet tortoise, Ddangkoma, because people called him weird. It refused to swim despite his requests – because he’s a land tortoise. (It would grow so big he had to donate it to the zoo.) I think Heechul once went to a concert toting a Disney Princess backpack he grabbed from a charity box. He definitely wore Disney Princess shorts, though. Kyuhyun is pure evil. And Siwon… he’s pure derp.

But putting Super Junior on this list is a no-brainer. The group – which celebrated their tenth year this year – has a very wide following around the world, although they’re arguably past their peak. The video for their best-selling song, 2009’s “Sorry, Sorry”, captures the group’s sound in a bottle: typical flower boy pop, albeit with flavors of alternative rock and R&B in places. S.M. Entertainment’s strategy for the group also made them inescapable: they were divided into several smaller groups catering to different markets, and their members’ solo efforts – as singers, actors and whatnot – have also been successful.


The female equivalent of Super Junior is Girls’ Generation. One, they’re also an S.M. group. Two, they’re also filled with derps. Three, with chart-toppers in both South Korea and Japan, and one of the widest followings in the world, Girls’ Generation is one of the most successful exports of the K-pop scene. And it’s a group that’s been in the making for years before they made their debut in 2007: the first members were recruited in 2000, and some of its members have had involvement in the entertainment industry in both Korea and Japan.

Their 2009 release, “Gee”, topped Music Bank‘s charts for nine weeks straight. Two years later they successfully cracked the Japanese market (KARA being the only other girl group to do so) with their eponymous album. It took them a bit longer to crack the American market: their third album The Boys – co-produced by Teddy Riley – failed to dent the Billboard 200 charts, but their 2014 EP Mr.Mr. did, debuting at 110th. (Seeing them perform for David Letterman, with Regis Philbin and Bill Murray watching, will always be a curiosity.)


Girls’ Generation was late to the Billboard game by two years: in 2012 Alive, the fifth EP of Big Bang, entered the Billboard 200 chart. (They were at 150th place, though.) Unlike most boy groups with their pretty boy images, Big Bang have played with a more authentic feel, channeling hip-hop influences and a very swag image in their releases. And the group has no urge to change their image up with every major release: to them, it’s just one concept, evolving over time.

But the group’s sound has evolved over time. From a more straightforward hip-hop sound, they have incorporated elements of R&B and electronic dance. (Aldub fans, this song will be very familiar to you.) But unlike their contemporaries 2NE1, Big Bang have often played with orchestral arrangements, especially in their “sad hip-hop” songs like “Haru Haru”, “If You” and “Lies”.


Known as “the nation’s little sister”, IU took a while before becoming the success she is today. Her debut single, “Lost Child”, came out in 2008, when she was just 15. Notice how there’s a barely noticeable whisper whenever she hits the high notes. Rainy thinks it’s a skill, but her handlers decided to “cure” it in successive releases. Still, no denying her vocal chops.

Her first full-length album, Growing Up, was a big success, although some of her fans were worried by the direction she took. “Boo” was very much bubblegum pop, and so was “Marshmallow”, off her second mini-album, IU…IM. Her 2010 single “Good Day” – with its three-octave build-up – ended those worries and planted her firmly on top of the K-pop scene. Despite the variations on styles – the swing-y 2013 album Modern Times; a recent jump to dance pop with her latest release, Chat-Shire – her albums have mostly tackled her young age and growing up. She’s just 23 now, after all.


And finally, a group that we’re throwing in solely because Rainy likes them so much, T-ARA. Well, there’s also her thinking that the group’s albums are all killer no filler, although Niko is hard-pressed at the moment to find that special something. But she’ll have none of that.

Rainy’s extolled the virtues of the group last May, but in a nutshell, the band’s been on a steady upward trajectory since the release of “TTL” and “Bo Peep Bo Peep” in 2009, but allegations of bullying against Hwayoung – who would later leave the group after conflicts with the rest of the members – somewhat derailed their momentum. However, the songs they do have – “Sugar Free”, “Number Nine” – are pretty irresistible. Or at least if you ask Rainy.


Additional reading: Again, we’re not the biggest experts, so we’ll point you towards a bunch of other “essential K-pop” lists online. Here’s one from Spin. Here’s one from Time. Finally, here’s one from – yes – Pitchfork. Caveat is, those lists were written during the heyday of “Gangnam Style” (save for Pitchfork’s, which has Orange Caramel on, yay) so it’s worth checking (US-based) hallyu sites such as Soompi and AllKPop for music updates. [NB/SY]

[Next week: we go through K-pop’s major genres one by one, starting with boy groups.]

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